A conversation with Ted Steinberg
Issue date: 11/12/10 Section: News
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Julia Clancy: You've written five books; you must have a lot to say. What do you write about?
Ted Steinberg: I do! My books explore the relationship between humans and the environment. When I was growing up, history was taught through a political perspective; we were to memorize presidential administrations, amendments, and dates. Then came "history from the bottom up," a perspective that studied history through a social lens, examining the lives and records of women, Latinos, blacks, those that were left out from the previous historical record. My books work to integrate these two perspectives, looking at what's missing from these two viewpoints, get down into the earth itself - right into the soil. I want to explore the way in which the natural world shapes history and how humans and capitalism have affected the course of nature.
JC: What brought you to CWRU?
TS: I came to Case in 1996. It's a really great place to be. The history department is a remarkable place and it's getting even better. I have great colleagues; it's a genial, wonderful set of intellectuals, that all expect out of students, in terms of reading, exactly what I expect. The university has been really good to me and I'm very grateful.
JC: What got you into this field?
TS: I see my scholarly work as an extension of my political life. The writing of history is a political act. When I was younger, I worked for a summer on Wall Street by the suggestion of a professor who told me that if I wanted to write about capitalism, then I should understand it, and work with it. Wall Street would've been a way to make a lot of money, but it was this experience that made me realize that I want to do research, write, create ideas, teach, and learn about the environment and history.
JC: Who were your biggest influences?
TS: My biggest influence would definitely be my high school social studies teacher, Fred Harrison. It was AP US history, and there was a lot we had to do to prepare for the AP exam, memorizing facts and whatnot, but he had different ideas, really radical approaches. He gave us materials focusing on a social history - we read about people that didn't usually have a voice in history. That's when I realized; I had a mind, and I could use it! I could engage in ideas, not just facts. History is all about interpreting. Another important influence was my grad school advisor Donald Worster. He was the founding father of environmental history. He's a dear friend, a first-class intellectual. He impacted my life in a way that makes me want to impact lives in the same way. If I can change one student's life the way Fred Harrison and Donald Worster impacted me, I'd consider my career successful.
JC: What's a class with Ted Steinberg like?
TS: I think students need to think about what they're getting out of college. They're here to engage their minds, and learn as much as they can, not take as many classes as they can. So many students think they know how to read, and they don't. Sure they can read the words on a page, but I think a lot of us are doing a lot of reading words on pages without understanding or engaging the text. Students are often only concerned about how many pages they have left to finish. That's a bad sign. They should be fully engaging the text: What is this author trying to say? Highlighters are terrible things-I opened up a book of one of my students with a highlighter and it was a giant phosphorescent pulp! What good does it do to highlight everything? Buy a pencil - it's cheaper, and it'll allow you to ask questions, circle key arguments and interact with the text. You're looking for an argument, and whether it holds up. It's such an essential skill - not only in being a student, but in life. You can't excel or live a rich life without critical reading, and I want to inspire in all of my students the desire to be a lifetime reader.
JC: Any overall advice to students?
TS: Take the foot off the gas! Slow down! 18 credits, triple majors, 6 minors, it's all madness. I think it's very dangerous to undergraduates to take too many courses. I took about 4 per semester in undergrad, and that was more than enough. There's a lot going on for kids ages 18-22. I'm afraid that taking too many classes beats out the love for ideas. How can you possibly understand what you're reading when you've had to cram in four books in one weekend?
JC: What are your plans for the future, and what are you working on now?
TS: I'm currently writing a book that examines the ecological history of the Hudson River estuary, better known as the New York metropolitan area. I wanted to look at capitalism and the environment - how modern corporations work with the natural world. In other countries, consumer products are often designed with the intent that they'll be reused or remanufactured, and are often made of recycled materials. Not in the US! Here we buy products, use them and throw them away. The four mountains of waste in Staten Island are monuments of the post-1940s consumer golden age. The research for this book has taken a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of research, and I'm hoping it'll be the book that I'll be most known for because I've certainly put a lot into it.